TURKEY: Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?

By Taspinay, Omer | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

TURKEY: Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?


Taspinay, Omer, The Middle East Journal


TURKEY Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? by Soner Cagaptay. London, UK and New York, 2006. xx + 162 pages. Figures and maps. Notes to p. 222. Bibl. to p. 244. Index to p. 262. $65.

Reviewed by Omer Taspinay

Samuel Huntington, a scholar not known to shy away from sweeping civilizational categorizations, calls Turkey a "torn country."1 Defining "Turkishness" is indeed a very complex task. In this readable and wellresearched book, Soner Cagaptay explains what can be best defined as the "paradox of Turkishness." There is an intriguing paradox in secular Turkey's conceptualization of Turkishness, mainly because Islam continues to play a crucial role in determining who is a Turk. All Muslims within Turkey's national borders are considered Turks, while non-Muslims are not. Although non-Muslims are legally accepted as citizens of the Turkish republic, there is no such thing as a "Christian Turk" in Turkey.

Such identification of Turkishness with Islam has legal implications that challenge basic norms of secularism. Non-Muslims, for instance, are effectively barred from public sector careers in Turkey. As a result, Turkey does not have a single non-Muslim officer in its military or foreign service. Ironically, this is not the case in the much less secular Arab world, where Christians are often part Arab officialdom. It is well known that the Kemalist founding fathers of modern Turkey embarked in the 1920s and 1930s in a drastic drive for secularization. Islam, they believed, was at the heart of Turkey's backwardness compared to Europe. They therefore purged the country of its political, cultural, and social symbols. Muslim identity had to become a private affair. Why then such stubborn insistence on identifying Turkishness with Islam?

Cagaptay has a good answer. In what emerges as his main thesis and the most important contribution of the book, he illustrates the continuity between the Ottoman millet system and the Republic's Turkishness. The millet system had divided the Ottoman population into religious communities. Yet, by the 19th century, religion was no longer the main common denominator. This was particularly the case for the Christian millet. As Christian ethnic groups embarked on their nationalist-separatist agenda the Ottoman elite proved unwilling to adopt a nationalist agenda of its own.

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